Why does our ostensibly “free” press insist on acting like prudes or cowards when reporting stories for which it’s vital that readers learn someone said “fuck” rather than an undefined “expletive”? Since the broadcast networks’ legal fight over crippling fines for on-air obscenities is back in the courts, it behooves the print medium to do its duty when actual four-letter beasties tell us more than polite but evasive circumlocution. It is time for the press to once again find its reportorial balls.
When the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) petitioned the Supreme Court this past week to weigh in on whether it can levy substantial fines against television networks for so-called fleeting expletives — spontaneously uttered obscenities on live television that a station’s censors fail to catch in time to suppress (think overexcited Cher dropping an f-bomb at the 2002 Billboard Music Awards on Fox, or U2’s Bono dropping his on NBC’s 2003 Golden Globe Awards broadcast) — the print media had a peculiar way of covering the story. The Boston Globe ran a shortened version of a March 2 Los Angeles Times piece, and never bothered to mention the actual words that landed Fox and NBC in such trouble with the FCC. The fuller Times story, by its staff writers David G. Savage and Jim Puzzanghera, hinted at the actual language at the heart of this dispute, but stopped short of printing Bono’s exclamation, “that is really, really fucking brilliant”; nor did it reprint Cher’s “fuck ’em,” directed at her critics, opting to write “f - - - ’em” instead.
American newspapers enjoy the First Amendment’s formidable protections to the maximum. So why do they voluntarily avoid printing expletives, and slang words with sexual connotations, even in cases where the controversial language itself is central to the news story being reported? Does the press really want to be seen as buying into the FCC’s bullshit that publishing these words is “indecent”?
Publish or perish
The American press is much freer than radio and television broadcast media. Under a dubious theory that the public (i.e., the government) owns the broadcast airwaves, the FCC can fine broadcast outlets up to $325,000 per violation per station if they broadcast “indecent” material. But newspapers are allowed to publish whatever they wish, subject to the obscenity laws that regulate speech at the extreme ends of the spectrum of offensiveness (examples of illegal obscenity include salacious photographs of excited sex organs or gratuitously titillating sexual acts, or words describing such acts, subject to geographic variations to account for local community standards). Newspapers are also subject to other narrow exceptions of free-press rights, including national security, defamation, and copyright.
Of course, a newspaper can voluntarily self-censor further as a matter of taste or style. In fact, it is reasonable for editors to discourage columnists from going the way of radio shock jocks and dropping gratuitous and mindless slurs on hapless readers. But news articles are a different species from opinion columns, let alone shock radio. And even in some opinion columns, the actual words matter.
Readers must be made aware that the FCC is levying severe fines on television networks that mistakenly broadcast the word “fuck,” or the like. It serves an important social purpose, and enriches citizens’ participation in a public debate about the legality — and, more fundamentally, the propriety — of using those words in public, and of punishing their use.
That’s why newspapers’ reluctance to print offensive words is so bizarre. If readers cannot ascertain the content of the disputed speech, they cannot decide for themselves whether the speech should be punished. Editors might counter that, by printing “fuck,” they would multiply whatever alleged harm the original “fuck” caused — the harm that was the reason for punishment in the first place. Besides, they might add, even oblique references to “four-letter words” are enough to inform readers of the speech at issue, and thus give them the opportunity to decide whether or not such language should be verboten.
The problem is that, by engaging in self-censorship, newspapers land squarely on one side of the debate: their reticence is a symbol to readers that those naughty words are not to be used or repeated in public. What’s worse, this self-censorship subtly insults readers by painting us as shrinking violets. Surely, the average reader of the New York Times or the Globe has the maturity to stomach a news article containing a “fuck” or “shit” — language heard commonly in homes, on the street, in plays and movies, even in schools and, if one listens closely enough, in churches.
It is a bit comical, not to mention demeaning to readers, to see the lengths newspapers will go to in order to avoid or suppress taboo words. Most amusing were the large number of book reviews praising Harvard Law professor Randall Kennedy’s 2002 work Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, while simultaneously refraining from publishing “the N word” itself.